Thursday 14 December 2017

Spirits high as green army scents victory over old enemy

Paul Lowbridge, from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Lisa Piggot, Ellie Marshall, both from London and Michael Pritchard, Portrush, Co. Antrim, in Twickenham
Paul Lowbridge, from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Lisa Piggot, Ellie Marshall, both from London and Michael Pritchard, Portrush, Co. Antrim, in Twickenham
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

AN unmerciful roaring and shouting rose from one row of the packed flight. Surely to God a fight hadn't broke out among some of the travelling supporters heading for Twickenham? Rugby fans don't brawl, especially at 11am before the porter has been flowing.

But no. As the Heathrow-bound plane idled on the tarmac, it was two lads taking advantage to YouTube – and probably not for the first time – Paul O'Connell's classic pre-match 'manic aggression' team-talk before Ireland played France in 2007.

It's a spectacle made all the more enjoyable for being totally at odds with the way the Irish travel to London every other year for one of the most intense fixtures in northern hemisphere rugby. Unlike the Irish football team's exuberant and conspicuous Green Army On Tour, rugby fans are a more piano bunch (outside the stadiums anyway).

They may travel in numbers, but it's a quieter invasion. The Irish bars around London's West End may suddenly find themselves a lot busier than usual on the eve of an England-Ireland showdown, but the green hats, scarves and tops are reserved for match-day.

And many of them will have travelled without tickets, hoping to pick some up outside the ground or through the Paddy Network. On the plane, two chaps seated beside each other got chatting. Neither Barry Flynn from Rush or Redmond Murray from Portlaoise had tickets, but they were "hopeful" of rectifying that small problem in London – although Redmond had heard of a pair of tickets going a-begging for £900 (€1,090).

One person who has his ticket sorted is Environment Minister Phil Hogan, who had given a speech at the testimonial dinner for Ronan O'Gara the previous evening and who had spoken of the "serious challenge" facing the rugby star. "It's a challenge politicians like me never have to face at any point in their lifetime – how many of you will have to sit through an evening where nobody does anything but praise you?" he joked to the 900 guests.

And the day after as he returned to his hotel having spent the morning touring the Thames flood barrier, the minister was optimistic about Ireland's chances.

"I think they're more experienced. But it will be tough," he reckoned.

Given the sheer scale of London, there is no one focal-point where visiting rugby-fans tend to gather, but this might be set to change with the opening of an official Rugby World Cup shop, slap bang in the centre of Covent Garden Market and filled with rugby-related goodies.

The store wasn't due to open for another week, but it brought forward the opening to yesterday morning to take advantage of the clash at Twickenham this weekend. And it turned out to be a wise decision. "The reaction had been incredible since we opened the doors at 10am," said manager Anita Chandler.

So far, it was Welsh merchandise doing the most trade but there have been plenty of Irish through the doors. "Most of the Irish think they'll win – in fact, even a few of our English customers have tipped Ireland!"

Anita, who has worked with the Rugby World Cup for several tournaments, believes Ireland would be the ideal nation to host the World Cup finals. "Just like New Zealand, it's the perfect competition for a small, friendly country where everyone like to mingle and have a beer," she said.

And one of the shop's managers is Katie Doddy from Killiney. "Rugby is huge in our family," she explained. "I think it'll be a really close game, but Ireland has a great team and are strong in the scrum and line-outs," she said.

As evening approached, the Irish bars started to get busy. In The Harp pub close to Covent Garden were friends Michael Bradley and Matt O'Leary from Macroom and Tadhg Buckley from Norwich (via Coachfield, Co Cork).

"We'll know after the first scrum," reckoned Matt. "It'll be won or lost in the centre," said Tadhg.

"It's too close to call".

In Waxy O'Connor's pub in Soho, four Irishmen – Ronan Kelly, Seamus Kelly, Barry Flynn and Rory 'Crilly' Moore and one Englishman were largely optimistic. Mark Walker from Birmingham has lived in Portlaoise for six years. "It'll be close, but I fancy the Irish to win. We (England) have a young team, and experience will count. We're building a team, and the manager needs to blood young players," he said.

Around the corner in O'Neill's pub, Roscommon trio Saoirse and Fiachra Galvin and Sean Gibbons and Naoimh Reilly from Newry were looking forward to their trip to Twickenham.

But Sean was unimpressed with Sky Sports' take on BOD's last foray into Twickenham.

"I heard the presenter say that it would be Brian's last game in the real home of rugby," he said disapprovingly.

Maybe it's time for Irish vocal chords to give it a bit of the O'Connell manic aggression today in the so-called Fortress Twickenham.

Surely a Triple Crown is worth shouting for.

Irish Independent

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